If I could get on a soapbox (other than this one, I guess . . . which would be silly . . . because this truly is my soapbox, but whatever), here is one thing I would say to writers everywhere: Don’t fear the tragic.
Writers tend to avoid unhappy endings. They think that a happy ending equals closure, and that does not have to be true. They also think a happy ending equals a happy reader, and that does not always have to be true either. Yes, stories often need definitive closure, but closure doesn’t have to mean happily ever after. (Whether a story really needs closure is a whole other blog post.) Writers have gotten this erroneous impression about the “need” for happy endings from readers who think that they want happy endings.
But readers do not always know what they really want in a story. And I think that by giving them what they think they want, we are insulting their intelligence and allowing them to wallow in a mire of mediocre material where they don’t realize what kind of literary luxuries they’re missing.
Let’s take a look at one of history’s most revered and respected writers – Will Shakespeare. If given ten seconds to name as many of his plays as you can, I’d be willing to bet this computer I’m typing on that in ten seconds, you could (and would) name more of his tragedies than any of his works from other genres. Heck, Romeo & Juliet is the first play that springs to most people’s minds when they think of good ol’ Shakesey. (And don’t comment and tell me something different. That just means you’re the exception or you’re showboating, and I don’t care.) After R & J, the plays I can name the fastest are these: Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear, As You Like It, Merchant of Venice, Twelfth Night, Othello, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Though not all are tragedies, the first three are, which of course you should have seen coming because it proves my point, and why would I write anything contradictory to my point?
Shakespeare was a great playwright because his tragedies moved people (and still do). People get pissed off when they read Romeo & Juliet because anyone who’s ever been in a relationship that has lasted longer than a week knows that communication is the key element missing from Romeo and Juliet’s relationship and that their pathetic, dramatic, teen-emo-worthy deaths could have been avoided had they just had better communication or a little patience. (But then, where would the story be?) Still, it’s infuriating to watch these adolescent idiots moon over each other and make mountains out of molehills and end up dead because they let their hormones control them.
However, are not rage, annoyance, anger, infuriation – are they not emotions? Even if you’re sensitive (read: silly) enough to feel pity for the two lovers or mourn their deaths, is that not still a reactionary emotion? Has Shakespeare not stirred you? Of course he has! Which means he has written well.
I love the phrase character you love to hate because it describes a writer’s skill so well. There is a prime example of this technique in a movie I recently watched, He’s Just Not That Into You. In discussing this movie with a couple of my friends, I said there was a particular character (Gigi, in case anyone has seen it) in the movie whom I absolutely hated, and my friends both gushed that they loved her. I asked how they could, and they said “Because she’s so cute!” And I said, “But she’s so stupid and clueless and pathetic and annoying!” One friend argued, “But she’s supposed to be over the top. No one is really like that in real life.” Whether the character traits were exaggerated intentionally or not, the character still got under my skin and I still hated her.
Which means that the writers did a brilliant job with that character. Not to toot my own horn (but then, why would I have my own blog if I didn’t intend to do just that), but I think that my reaction to the character is “correct” and my friends’ reactions “incorrect,” in terms of assessment of technique. I don’t think viewers are supposed to love this character. If she is a well-written character and if the actress portraying her is doing what she’s supposed to be doing, then viewers should be annoyed by her because she’s absolutely ridiculous. In a movie, the ultimate effect is comical, yes. But in real life, nobody would want to be this girl’s friend. Especially not me. In essence, we are supposed to love to hate her. Which I do.
This is what tragic/sad endings are supposed to do as well. If done right, a tragic ending should anger the reader or make him cry, and if it does, the writer has achieved her goal. If you have a strong outburst of negative emotion that directly pertains to a scene in a book, then it should not matter whether you “like” to cry or you “like” sad endings. All that should matter is the fact that such a reaction was able to be evoked from you. If you don’t like to cry, all the better. Because I think it’s safe to assume that if you don’t like to cry, you don’t do it often. Which again points to the skill of the author who succeeds at making you cry.
An example of someone whom I believe fears the tragic is J.K. Rowling. If you haven’t read all seven Harry Potter books and don’t know how the series ends (and don’t want to), please do not continue. You have been warned. If you would at least like to see my conclusion, then just skip the next three paragraphs and pick up with the words I don’t respect. . . .
Before you get in a tizzy about the fact that I’m critiquing one of the world’s most renowned writers, please note that I am in no way disparaging Rowling’s talent as a writer. I think she’s brilliant, and I love her series. But I think she got afraid of where it was going and took control near the end instead of letting the story and characters take their natural course.
I would have loved to see her kill off Harry. Of course I love Harry, but that’s exactly why I was hoping he would die. My outpouring of emotion over the death of one of my favorite literary characters of all time would have been intense, and it would have been warranted and well earned. Now, I know that Rowling is no stranger to tragedy in her fiction. I know she kills off a lot of people, especially in her last two books, and I did cry over most of them. But what courage it would have taken for her to kill Harry, and what skill it would have required!
Writers who risk everything by being bold and daring enough to be willing to upset readers are met with a challenge that forces skill, determination, and supreme effort. And the ones who succeed are to be commended rather than decried. I still love Rowling, and I know my opinion in the literary world is worth nothing (but then, that’s why I blog about it instead), but I’d have really respected her a whole lot more if she’d been courageous enough to kill him. And I was superbly disappointed by her attempt at closure in her happily-ever-after epilogue. To me, that felt like a coward trying to hide his shame.
I don’t respect readers who say they don’t like sad endings. If that is really true, then they aren’t realizing their full potential as readers. To me, this is like the person who says he avoids dating or relationships because he’s afraid of getting hurt. This person isn’t doing himself any favors. Instead, by closing himself off from love or the possibility of it, he’s missing out on a lot of fantastic emotions and feelings and experiences.
I can neither respect nor relate to people like this. I don’t care if I end up hurt. Wounds heal, and a broken heart isn’t going to kill me. I’d rather have the laughter, the physical touch, the intensity of shared emotion, and the chemistry and spark that come from human connection. Tears always dry eventually.
So for the sake of their readers’ emotional education, writers have to be willing to break hearts. It doesn’t mean that everything they write has to be sad. But all writers should be more open to the idea of hurting their readers, and all readers should be more open to the idea of getting hurt.